Wes Kao is the cofounder of Maven, the world’s first digital platform for cohort-based courses. In just one year, the Maven team launched over 100 cohorts, saw dozens of instructors make $10K, multiple made $250K+, and raised a $20m Series A from Andreesen Horowitz.
Their course creators include Anthony Pompliano, Li Jin, Sahil Lavingia, Shaan Puri, and Sahil Bloom.
Prior to starting Maven she was the co-founder of the altMBA, which launched the modern cohort-based education movement with Seth Godin. She’s led over 150 launches for Fortune 500 brands and startups, and is recognized as a leading expert in B2C marketing.
In this episode, Wes and Aaron discuss how to go from being and outside to an insider, why MOOCs fail, and how Wes got a job with Seth Godin.
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If you liked this interview, check out episode 422 with Pomp.
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Watson: All right. So, Wes, thanks for coming on the podcast. I'm excited to be talking with you.
Kao: Yeah. Really excited to be here Aaron.
Watson: So, this is pretty exciting because your, um, your business model with Maven is both something new and really something very old, very well-established, which is usually a pretty powerful Venn diagram when in all things, but particularly business models where there's, something very familiar and timeless about the offering that you guys have in your approach to education while simultaneously injecting some kind of new modern tools.
Can you explain the concept of cohort-based courses and contextualize that within the recent history of online education and education generally?
Kao: Yeah. When you think back about the past 10 years, the dominant form of online learning was Evergreen and On-Demand. So these are video courses that are basically a series of recordings and you watch these videos by yourself. There's no community, there's no interaction. Um, and presumably there's more flexibility because you can access all this amazing rich content anytime, anywhere. But what really ends up happening is there's no accountability to actually continue learning. And so you see these really low completion rates, anywhere between 6 to 10% completion for people who sign up for, for these massive open online courses, MOOCs, um, and a tiny percentage of people who actually finish.
So cohort-based courses are the opposite. Seth Godin and I created this format in 2014, 2015, when we launched the alt MBA. And, what's key about the cohort-based format is that it is entirely interaction driven. It's community driven. It's live, not everything has to be live, but it's very much about learning while doing.
So, a cohort-based course might be, you know, three days a week, three weeks, six weeks, eight weeks. But there's a set period of time when you're learning with a cohort of other professionals. So let's say you're taking, um, a UX design course. If you were taking this course on Udmey, LinkedIn Learning, Teachable or any other static course format, you know, you're, going through a bunch of five minute videos learning about concepts, like contrast, balanced composition, um, you know, typography, but you're really trying to put it into practice by yourself without any interaction with the outside world.
And then on the flip side, though, if you're taking a cohort-based course on UX Design, you might be designing a flyer and everyone then shares the flyers that they designed and the instructor critiques a couple student's live and points out. Alright. Here's what you did well. Here's what, you know, what you could fix. Here's, what's a little bit muddy. And then everyone adjusts based on feedback, and does it again. And then you might go into small groups where, it's groups of four to five people in zoom, and you're talking about a certain piece of design. It might be an Instagram photo or a landing page or a website, and everyone's kind of chiming in, and you might redesign it as a group as a project. So it's much more interactive and it's much more about learning while doing, and we've found that with cohort-based courses, the completion rate is 75% and up. With the Alt MBA, our completion rate was 96% completion. And it's because it's much more fun to learn with other people and you have skin in the game, and the accountability leaves community to all come together to create learning outcomes that are much stronger.
Watson: And I can speak personally to buying the classic MOOC style course and being one of the, I guess, 94% that don't complete it. Cause I'm guilty, guilty as charged. Um, so it makes a ton of sense in that regard. And the other part of it is just the style of learning when something is live in some way, shape or form, like if I over the course of the next 30 minutes or so, put my foot in my mouth and misattribute some element of the Maven story, of the cohort-based coursee story, of your backstory, you can very quickly identify where I have a misunderstanding and nip it in the bud, right there. Versus the completely a hundred percent passive experience of exclusively consuming the content and not necessarily engaging with it or engaging with other people on the topic doesn't really allow for that kind of tuned sense of correction. And it's going to be perfect because it's digital and we’re all, you know, not being able to fully read people's body language and tone to the same degree as being in person, but that's still also part of the value prop for why these courses are not only getting better completion and better efficacy, but also potentially making more.
Kao: For sure. I mean, how many times have you been in class and someone raised their hand and asked a question and you're like, oh yeah, I totally don't get that either. I'm so glad that that person asked. Like, that's definitely happened to me. And the beauty of cohort-based courses is that because it is live and it's real time, you can ask those questions. You benefit from seeing other students asking their questions, too.
And from the creator side, the instructor side, you get a lot more information about what are your students struggling with,? What do they find easy? And you can go through that material faster and spend more time on certain areas. You can stay a lot more attuned to what your students need and stay flexible to almost the organic nature that some of the best, most rigorous, of conversations, discussions, debates tend to have.
Watson: And so you cited, your help with Seth Godin in the mid 2010s, getting the Alt MBA off the ground, which is this cohort based course model. Uh, I'm going to draw a parallel between Ben Thompson's newsletter, Stratechery, and the now really large platform of Sub Stack that enables all of these different writers to do a paid newsletter subscription service.
And my interpretation is very similar, when you listen to Ben trying to get that paid newsletter off the ground before a tool like Sub Stack, he's lassoing together, different tools trying to make it happen. And Maven’s business model is basically okay I'm sure and I would love to hear stories about you lassoing the tools together to make it work back in 2015, versus what Maven’s kind of offering and figured out on behalf of users in the presentt.
Kao: A big part of my inspiration for starting Maven was all the late nights I had lassoing together, all of these different tools. And it wasn't just in 2015, it was 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020. It was actually kind of insane. Like I thought, you know, okay, 2015, 2016, of course we're new to this. This is an entirely new format that we're creating. So of course there's no tools to make this easier. Right. We're cobbling together, a bunch of disparate platforms. Um, but as the years went on and I left the ultimatum and started working directly with other creators, professor Scott Galloway at Section Four, the co-founders Morning Brew to build their eight week course, David Perell for Write of Passage and sort of working with all these other creators.
I thought surely there must be a platform that could make all of this slog a lot easier. And, and there wasn't. So, you know, I've spent way too many hours trying to adjust the column width of something, trying to make a link, look a certain way, or be a different color, or make a landing page look a certain way or debug and troubleshoot why a zap stopped working in Zapier for no particular reason. And the technical piece is really so frustrating. You know, for me as a business side person, I think a lot of creators, um, resonate with that. A lot of creators are not technical per se. You know, they didn't get into writing their subject newsletter, uh, or teaching a course or doing YouTube because they love messing with the technology.
They got into it because they love connecting with their audience. They love telling stories. They love sharing what they know. They love sharing their best ideas and the best frameworks. So for me, creating Maven was about solving a problem that I had felt and all the creators I worked with felt. Um, and I think Maven now coming in as a platform layer to make it a lot easier to create a course is so important because it removes all of the logistical and administrative and technical pieces that instructors would otherwise have to spend time on. And now, you know, with all that off your plate, you can actually focus on making your content better, connecting your community, engaging with your students, you know, and that's really what creators are best at….
Oh I think you’re muted
Watson: Geez. I hate when that happens. Sorry.
So let's talk about launching in general. Um, in the first year for Maven, you guys launched a hundred, cohorts, and you also launched your own company.
So what have you learned? And you like, literally the list that you just gave us, Seth Goden Morning Brew, David Perell, Scott Galloway. That's basically like a Mount Rushmore of digital marketers. So you've seen behind the curtain at some real legit brand building and media building and taken part in it too.
I don't want to cast you as a solely a passive observer. So how have you thought about launching Maven and then in conjunction with that maybe we can build into what have the best cohorts or the best instructors done to successfully launch a course of their own, a cohort-based course of their own.
Kao: Now I’m muted, all right. Um ok, so the question is… what advice do I have for first-time course creators based on what I have seen from others.Yeah, absolutely. My advice for first-time course creators is to think about course market fit first and form. I see a lot of people get excited about courses and want to start diving into building curriculum and putting together lessons and starting to record content. Um, but what ends up happening is, you know, weeks or months later, when they finished building their course, they launch it, release it to the public and they expect hoards of students to come banging down their digital doors.
And what really ends up happening is usually crickets and tumbleweed. So, radio silence. You know, very little activity and commotion, and it's very jarring for the course creatoer who just spent so much time and love and, you know, blood, sweat, and tears into creating this course. So, thinking about course market fit upfront, prevents you from launching something that no one actually wants.
So, when I say course market fit, I mean this as an extension of product market fit, because your course is really a product. So, of course market fit is making sure that you are the right person teaching the right course to the right target audience at the right price point to your students.
So, you know, making sure all of these different elements come together is going to save you a lot of effort down the line. So positioning your course, thinking about, you know, what are some juicy problems that my target student has, that my course can help solve. That's going to make sure that there's actually willingness to pay for your particular topic.
Right? So answering some of these hard questions earlier, rather than later, make sure that there's actually student demand for the topic that you're going to teach. And we've seen, even really experienced traders, like Pomp. Anthony Pompliano. He has a crypto course on Maven. He was one of our first instructors and, you know, early on when Pomp was building his course, he was building it for crypto beginners.
And before we released it, we thought, okay, let's check in to make sure that we're vetting this hypothesis, that this is your target student. So he did a survey and, uh, talked about his course on Twitter, asked people to sign up for his wait list and answer a few questions. And, to our surprise, the people who were most interested in taking this course from the survey were crypto intermediate and advanced practitioners. These are people who had self-diagnosed as you know, I already know the basics, and I want something that's a bit more advanced. And because of that, Pomp then adjusted his entire curriculum. Scrapped half of it, rebuilt the other half to make it more aligned with his target student.
So even for someone like Pomp, who has been creating content for a really long time, he has literally a million followers on Twitter, and has a pretty big audience, he still benefited from, validating his course concept, from validating his target student, validating whether there was demand for his course.
So that's definitely something that I've seen across all the creators that I've worked with both before starting Maven, and since starting Maven, that's something that's super important to do.
Watson: And I have a very good friend who sold a MOOC very successfully, and it has at least above the average numbers that you've shared for completion. And one of the things that's still interesting though, just kind of understanding what he has access to from a dashboard standpoint and his considerations for potentially continuing to build that course out and increase its value, is there aren't a ton of insights into where the gaps in knowledge are of the student that's coming to you.
So you're talking about pre kind of determining and serving an audience, but even as someone's going through that educational experience, brcause, you're not, like I said, live there and taking stuff in or hearing the questions that come up consistently, at least in that format, it's a little bit more challenging to tailor the content.
Whereas I believe it was Sean Perry, another one of your top course launchers, I heard him talking on a podcast about how, you know, he does his power writing course once, and then the next time he more or less scraps, V1 and launches V2 with kind of tighter lessons and a more relevant trajectory and just gets that chance to fully iterate because it's a live experience each time versus something that's kind of static in what was produced at that point in time.
Kao: Yeah. If you just spent, you know, weeks or months putting together a video-based course and spending a ton of time editing it, doing animations, you know, putting in a talking head versus slides of graphics, there's huge sunk costs with needing to rerecord something. And so it's much easier to just say, alright I'm just going to leave it as is even if I'm getting emails from students saying, hey, can you explain more on this? Or I didn't really understand that. So with the cohort-based course, because it is live, there is so much more opportunity to iterate. And on the greater side, it's much easier to think about alright, what worked with my first cohort?
What do I want to do differently for my second cohort? For my third cohort? And the way that we teach course building with Maven is to build in a modular way. So you have these couple different components, but it's all very modular. It's like an Ikea, um, shelf. You know, I have one of these Ikea Elvarli Closets where you can add an attachment. You can remove one based on the size of your shelf, the height of your closet, whether you want more drawers versus open shelves, right? So that the basic components are there and we teach you what those basic components are. But you, as a creator, get to think about as you evolve and as your interests evolve, and as you get more insight into what your students want. It's super flexible to move these different modules and these different modular components around.
Watson: So let's talk about launching Maven itself. You talked about finding the fit with the instructor and their respective audience, what that audience is looking for, but you know, just candidly, there's not a lot of startups and I'm just going to cite some, some stats here from one of your co-founders tweets, that in their first year, have multiple instructors making a quarter of a million dollars worth of revenue, dozens of instructors, making five figures of revenue growing from three to 20 employees and achieving all your year one product milestones. That not only speaks to a really competent founding team, but also product market fit and a probably very well thought through or path of least resistance type of strategy for going to market and finding who it is that should be selling these courses, at least initially. Because you cite Pomp, you cite some of these other characters with enormous audiences, like just take us through how that worked and what insights or what kind of strategies you employed to get this thing off the ground so quickly.
Kao: One of my principles for making career decisions and figuring out what to build is making sure that I have an unfair advantage with whatever it is that I'm doing. So, you know, I talked to a lot of founders or a lot of course creators and you know, a big question is, well, what should I teach? Or what should I build? You know, what company should I start? And, my thinking is, if there was someone random on the street who, with the same amount of effort, working really hard, could do the thing that you want to do, then that's probably not a good fit. I don't think you have enough of a competitive advantage if any random person with effort is going to be able to accomplish the same thing.
So when I think about unfair advantages, I mean, what is it about your track record background, network, personality, interests, that make you uniquely suited to solving a particular problem? And I think one of the reasons why Maven has been such a rewarding journey pretty much from the beginning is because both Goggin and my backgrounds were really suited for starting this company.
So speaking for myself before starting Maven, for five to six years before that I was obsessed with cohort-based courses. I created one of the first ones and designed the format that eventually led to this category of cohort-based courses. That's one. And then working with a bunch of creators with, you know, professor Scott Galloway from Section Four, I worked with him and his founding team to design their proprietary sprint format and named it the Sprint.
Right? So like this two week sprint format that they've since grown into a bunch of different sprints, um, being there from the ground, uh, from day one, growing it from zero doing the same with a lot of different other creators that gave me so much insight into course creation. The process, the struggles, the challenges that creators have the parts that they're most excited about.
Um, the problems that were juiciest, that if we were able to solve that would add so much value for creators. So that kind of insight, um is really, really valuable. You know, we didn't have to do customer development and customer interviews in the way that most founders do because five years before starting Maven, that was all customer development. You know, it was living that customer development directly being embedded behind the scenes in all of these different teams. So I think that had a lot to do with coming in and having a strong instinct and strong data points, and strong hypotheses about what could we build that could be really valuable.
So that's one. Um, I think the other big piece of our go-to market strategy was thinking about, what could we start doing to hit the ground running and start adding value to creators before our software was ready? Good software takes time to build. It's not something that can just happen overnight. So when Gog and I started the business in October, 2020, we found Shreyans, our technical co-founder Shreyans Bhansal, in December.
And he started in January, January, 2020. And we needed to buy Shreyans to build up an engineering team, to build up a product team, to build up a design team, to actually get the software product going. Um, and in the meantime we thought, okay, how can we add value? So Gog and I had an idea of, you know, what if we basically productized Wes’ consulting practice from before Maven.
And so that's what we did. So the first few courses were me and our first hire working directly with Pomp with Lenny Rachitsky, who was an early product manager with Airbnb, who has a subset newsletter now and has a Maven course on project management. We also worked with Legion who was a former VC at Andreessen Horwitz and coined the term passionate economy. She has a course on Maven, um, Sahil Levenia CEO of Gumroad founder of Gumroad, who also has a course on Maven called “Minimalist Entrepreneur.” So it was me and our first hire working directly with these creators building their courses. And then once we got those off the ground, it was then saying, how can we do this in a more scalable way?
So I created the Maven course accelerator, which is a three week cohort-based course where we teach you everything you need to know nuts to bolts about building a cohort-based course. How to put together a curriculum, how to think about course market fit, how to position yourself, how to do course marketing, how to think about your funnel, what to put on your landing page, how to create projects, how to hire coaches and TAs, if you want that.
So everything that I'd learned from creating courses condensed into this really meaty, um, intensive, condensed experience. And with the Maven course accelerator, we've been able to work with hundreds of instructors, helping them come onto the platform, learn the basics of how to create a course and launch their pilot courses.
So we were really thinking about adding value right from the beginning. Um, and you know, and since then, our software has been getting stronger and stronger by the week. So now someone joining Maven, it's totally different than someone who joined, you know, at this time last year or even six months ago, because our software has continued to improve and will continue to improve.
Um, and meanwhile, we're continuing to educate creators and help get them on board and onboarded and up to speed with how to download all their ideas and put it onto paper and turn it into a course.
Watson: Epic. So I have a kind of odd question that I wasn't expecting to necessarily ask, but I'm listening to kind of the trajectory that Maven's been on, and your personal trajectory as well.
And I mean this in a very, way of admiration, the list that you've articulated of past clients and users of Maven are like candidly, the who's who of the, the very online in the business intellectual space, like literally. Seth Godin and Scott Galloway as like, arguably like almost the old guard.
And then the Morning Brew, David Perell, Sahil Lavingia, CEO of Gumroad, Pomp Sean like I could keep going down the list and the perspective of mine is that that is an insider’s position, like to just have, and I'm sure that this fed on itself to some degree. Like where once you can say, hey, you know, we helped Pomp with his course that opens doors with people that otherwise, maybe wouldn't have considered you or would have been a more difficult sale.
Can you talk about either when you felt like an outsider before kind of becoming that insider, maybe reject the whole premise of that question or what strategies you've employed to earn that type of position, because I think that there's a lot of folks, whether or not they're creating content, it might not even necessarily be in that space specifically.
Maybe they want to get into the who's who of supply chain or the who's who of the art world or whatever the thing may be. You've crossed, whatever that barrier is. At least from my vantage point. Can you talk about specifically that challenge, that many people early in their career face.
Kao: I love this question.
I'm so glad that you asked it because for most of my career, I felt like an outsider. So I would love to share, you know, what that felt like and what the transition was to getting in front of the people that I wanted to get in front of. I think that that is so valuable of a skill for anyone, whether you're a marketer or a designer, founder, freelancer, consultant, right.
We're always trying to get in front of certain people and it can sometimes feel really impossible to be seen, right? It's like, you know, how much value you bring, you know how good you are, but to even get your foot in the door and get someone to even consider you is a huge battle in and of itself.
So I think one principle that I've internalized deep into myself is adding value to other people. Adding value and not asking for something in return and not, not taxing people. I see and get a lot of pitches from people, you know, Twitter, DMS emails, cold outreach. And I can tell that the person thinks that they're offering something.
But what they're really asking for is a lot, because they'll ask for something like, hey, can we hop on a call. Can you try my product or can you review this or can you do that? And that is, is a really hard ask for people that you're trying to get in front of who are, you know, might be really busy and they might have a lot of other people pitching them.
And I remember back in the day doing stuff like that too. And I'm like, oh yeah, like, I know why that, why I did that. But now being on the other side, I can empathize with both sides that, you know, the people receiving those pitches have to say no, just to protect their head space or time to be able to even do their work.
But then on the other side, the up and comers are writing these notes, writing these pitches, are also trying so hard, you know? So, you know, rewinding a little bit, a lot of people ask, how did you start working with Seth Goden? So I'll tell that story, because I think that that's a little bit serendipitous and could be interesting and insightful for, for some listeners.
That happened entirely, randomly. So, I was at a Sequoia-backed tech company at the time in SF and was looking for a new opportunity. I wanted to move to New York. SoIt was kind of looking at some roles there. And a friend of mine, sent me a blog post that said, saying that he was looking for a six-month special project lead to help him figure out what he wanted to do next.
At that point, you just sold off his last company, which he had worked on for almost a decade, and was looking for what is the next big area that I want to invest in. So I saw this post and I thought, all right, this sounds super exciting. I mean, Seth is a marketing legend. And the chances of me getting this role are pretty slim, right?
I'd applied to a bunch of things before and like not gotten it, and I didn't want to spend too many cycles making it perfect and then feeling bad that I didn’t get it. So I submit the application. It was a Google form, plus a video. You need to do a video. I think it was like two to three minutes talking about what you wanted to build, what you wanted to contribute and what you wanted to learn.
And I did this video in one take. I didn't even redo it. Didn't edit it. Did one take. I was like, this is pretty good. This is good enough. I'm just going to submit it. Cause again, I don't want to overthink it. And a couple of days later, I see Seth in my inbox saying, hey, I loved your application. Your video is great.
Let's let's hop on a call for an interview. I was completely shocked. Super shocked that, you know, wow. Like I can't believe that this actually worked and, you know, jumping up and down in my living room, before, you know, calmly writing a professional email, like, yes, I would love to do an interview. Let's figure out a time. Right. So, I think, you know, first, when I look back on that, my first, piece of advices is always toss your hat in the ring. I think that's the first thing I think I almost didn't toss my hat in the ring because I thought I'd been rejected so many times before for other things in my life.
I mean, even at that point from the outside, if someone had looked in, they'd be like, wow, like you've worked at some interesting companies you were at Gap doing an amazing rotational program went through Old Navy, Banana Republic. I worked at Lorielle, in New York, I worked at Bare Essentials, which is a beauty company owned by Shiseido.
I was at this, this cool tech company That was funded by Square Capital, one of the best VCs in the valley. So, you know, even at that point, people would say, oh wow, you seem like you've, quote-unquote “made it.” Or like, you know, you've had a good trajectory, but even then the truth was behind the scenes.
I'd applied to a bunch of stuff all throughout the years and didn't get accepted. Right. So those are my highlights. The things I ended up doing were the things that worked. People didn't see all the other things that I didn't get paid for. So I think that's one thing. So throwing your hat in the ring, I think is super important.
Don't write yourself out of the race before the race has even started. So that's one. Um, I think the second thing is stay open to serendipitous opportunities. I think that the reason that I was able to work with that was because for seven years before that I had worked really hard in my career, starting from when I was in college at UC Berkeley.
I was, and actually before that in high school, I was weird in that I was already thinking about my career, you know, in high school. So I had been planning my career and thinking thoughtfully about it and looking for challenging opportunities with every step that I was doing so that when I applied, I think that that came through.
Right. It won't always come through. People won't always have a chance to see you, but if you've been working on your craft behind the scenes, every step of the way, you will be ready for opportunities when they come. So if you just look for opportunities, but you are not working on your craft, on becoming a more rigorous thinker, on making better decisions, on thinking about second order effects, positive, negative externalities, thinking about upside versus trade-offs, getting better at whatever your craft might be, getting better at writing, at communication, at leadership at shipping, at building, right. If you're not doing all those things, then when an opportunity comes and you are lucky enough to get it, you won't be able to execute. And that opportunity won't last long.
So I think the other big part of it is, work on your craft and get better at what you do so that when you, when lightning strikes and you get in front of the right person, that you are able to shine. And then I think lastly, thinking about pitches in terms of what you can do for the other person. What you can bring to the table that solves an expensive, juicy problem that they have. Thinking about that and making the note entirely about them will differentiate you from 99% of other people. So usually what ends up happening is is people describe what benefits them. So they'll say, you know, Hey, I, really want to work with you Pomp, let's say, or Seth or Wes. I really want to work with you. Here's my background. Here's what I want to learn. Here's what I want to accomplish. And it's me, me, me, me, me. Really.
I actually have an exercise that I have people do, which is highlight your note in yellow for all the parts that are about you. You talking about your background, even if you think that it's giving context to why you're a good fit, it's still about you. So highlight that yellow, and then anything about the other person, about your recipient highlight that green. And I've seen notes that are, that are almost all yellow, like two lines of green. Really. And if, if we're honest with ourselves about our pitches, most of them start out that way. And that's totally normal because we are ourselves and we're in our own heads. So we're writing from our own perspective, but you need to really actively fight that urge and edit the notes so that you flip it. You invert it. 90% of it should be green and a couple lines can be about you. When I write notes, pitch notes, even now... Right? You think like, oh, we're already in the in-crowd.
Like no way. There is not, I don't feel like we are even close to the point where we can do throwaway copy that is just about ourselves and just like fluff and throw away, and like selfish copy. Right? Like any piece of copy that we send is still focused on the instructor, about whoever it is that I want to get in front of, I am making it about them. I'm making it personal. I’m making it customized. I'm sharing the upside of what, why they win or why they benefit or what they get out of it. Not what I get out of it. Right? Like a lot of pitches will, you know, even internally we'll start off, like, you know, we Maven do this. Our mission is to blah, blah, blah.
Like no one cares about our mission. No one cares about what we want to accomplish and yada, yada, yada, right? They want to know that, you know, I've looked at their side, right? I've been following them on Twitter for a while, and I think they could do an amazing course on X. And here are examples of a few other people who are on the platform who have made X amount of money doing this, and I think that they could do a course that could be a week long for X number of students. I think we could get this up in the next couple of months. I think that we can build off of a lot of your existing content and I'll cite a couple examples of, you know, your blog post on that or your evergreen course on this, you know. So I make it sound exciting for them.
I make it sound like, hey, this is not going to be a lot of work for you. And it's going to be a lot of upside. So really thinking in this way, regardless of whether you're starting out or you're advanced or anywhere in between, this idea of making it entirely about the other person is so, so important. And I feel like if you nailed this one thing, you are going to open more doors than you imagine. And I'll give you some examples. There are people that we work with now at Maven, contractors, freelancers who stood out from the pack. From hundreds of, of DNS at Gaga. How do they get picked?
Because they offered value and showed the upside of what it would be like to work with them without asking for very much in return. And because of that, we were able and willing to take the bet on them. So, this works because I have worked with people who have no track record whatsoever. So kind of, you know, I said earlier on develop your track record, but you know, now with this piece of advice, even if you don't have a track record, but you focus entirely on how the other person benefits, you can get people's attention.
Watson: That was absolutely fire. Like I'm going to, we're going to clip that and just make that its own piece of content for people that are trying to figure out how to go from outsider to insider, because there was so much there.
I want to just kind of e-emphasize a couple of points that you made really quickly. Number one, momentum is a very real. So if it's a little stuff in the beginning, it feeds on itself. And whether that's the accumulation of skills or the expansion of a network, once you start to feel momentum, which you don't feel at the beginning of your career, then it's like, wow, this is way better. The same way wobbling on a bike is nowhere near as fun as just kind of zooming somewhere on it.
The second thing is when you talked about like developing the skills, no one gets a seat at the table if they don't bring something to it. So that is the way to actually get access is if you have something tangible to bring. Whether that be hyper-specific and niche, or broad. That is the thing that cracks the door open for you to some degree. And then I actually just thought of this as you were saying it because I've given the same advice. I get pitched all the time to have guests on pods. And I also have to pitch people to try and get them onto the pod. And I just, this came to mind, maybe I'm stealing this from someone, but all the personal stuff, save it for the autobiography. Save it for the end. You know who can write about themselves? Bob Iger. You know, who can write about themselves? The Obama's. You know who can write about themselves? The people that have done it.
And if you're not at the end, if you're not the person with like the whole litany of things, yes, you want to build yourself up, but save it for the autobiography.
Kao: I love that. I think that is kind of real advice that we all need to remind ourselves of, really. I loved what you said about bringing something to the table. That's how you get a seat at the table. I think, you know, the next question that someone might have is, well, what do I know what I should bring? Right? You know, Aaron, Wes, you just said I should bring value. Welll, how do I know what kind of value to bring? And so, I see a lot of pitches say, what do you need? Like, I'll do anything. Right? Whatever you need, I'm willing to do it. I'm scrappy, I'm hardworking, et cetera. And that's great, but if you think about it, that also is putting a lot of work on your recipient to think about how you could fit in, to think about what your skills are, what your weaknesses are, how that aligns with the business, how you might be able to plug in. That is that's a lot of work. That actually is the hard part.
Right. Once you figure that out, then you can hire pretty much anyone to fill in gaps. Right? The hard part is thinking, what do I need? You know what, I, as the recipient, right, what do I need done? And how to do it, blah, blah, blah. So someone emailing you and saying, hey, I'm willing to do anything, is actually not as helpful as you think.
It sounds like a generous offer, but it's actually not. Especially for someone who's super busy, who, you know, is getting pitched all the time. And I think, what you can do if you're in the position of pitching someone and you're the one saying like, hey, I'm willing to do anything, is to make some assertions about what you think that person needs. Make some hypotheses about what you think that person or company needs.
That activity alone shows that you are actively thinking, that you are a critical thinker, a rigorous thinker, that you are thinking about how you can plug in and how you can make your recipient's life easier. So if someone, pitches me and says, “Hey, Wes, I noticed on your site that you have a lot of creators in these spaces. I think that there are a bunch of creators in this other vertical that would be amazing. I have a deep network in this vertical and I'm obsessed with cohort-based courses. I've taken a few. And you know, I've maybe tried working on one. I would love to bring these creators onto Maven.” I'm listening. If someone's saying that, I'm listening.
I don't care about your background, about where you went to school, where you worked before your, your mission or inspiration, blah, blah, blah. The fact that you are solving a problem that is keeping me up at night, that is catching my attention. And the reason that that catches my attention, is because that person went through the hard work of thinking about what might I need.
So, you asserting what the other person might need, you're not going to be right a hundred percent of the time, and you're going to get data points about what works and what doesn't. So part of it is a guessing game, right? Because you can't ask that person what they.
So part of your skill and your resourcefulness shows up here, is how, how well can you assess what someone needs and then tailor the pitch to that. But if you can do that, you can come from a completely irrelevant background and still get in front of the people that you want to get in front of if you are saying, hey, here's the problem that I'm seeing that you might have, and here's how I'm going to solve it with very little input needed from you. I think that's the last part. If you're going to solve it, but it takes a bunch of resources from that person or a bunch of time from that person, that becomes a lot less attractive.
But if you're saying I can pretty much independently with a little bit of guidance or a little bit of input from you, start doing this thing, and bring you a ton of upside, that will perk up anyone’s ears.
Watson: Wes this has been absolute fire, and I can't believe how much of the hour we've already chewed up here. So I got to aim towards asking the standard last two questions that we usually wrap up these interviews with. I do, I'm just going to put in right now, we have to, at some point in the future do a round two of this, because I feel like if we can build off of this momentum people are going to continue to get a lot of value from it.
Um, but before I ask those standard last two questions. Is there anything else you were hoping to share today that I just didn't give you a chance?
Kao: No, I think we covered a lot of good stuff.
Watson: Beautiful. Well, I want to make sure that people can check out Maven, you, all the crazy stuff that you guys are up to. What digital coordinates can we provide for people that would want to learn more?
Kao: You can go to Maven.com. M-A-V-E-N.com to learn more about what Maven is up to and the way we're working with creators, including the free cohort-based course that I talked about. Maven Course Accelerator. And, we're also at MavenHQ on Twitter, and I'm at Wes underscore Kao and weskao.com.
I write a lot about the stuff that we talked about here with how to get people to say yes, how to pitch yourself. A lot more on that on my blog.
Watson: Right on. We're going to link all of that in the show notes for this episode. You can find it in the app where you're probably listening to this or at goingdeepwithaaron/podcast for every single episode of the show.
But before I let you go Wes, I would like to give you the mic one final time to issue an actionable personal challenge to the audience.
Kao: My personal challenge for you is to think about how you can turn bugs into features. Whether it's a bug about your product, about your business, about yourself. How can you turn that into a feature?
And when I say bug, I mean, I'm referring to an old engineering software development joke where, if there's an error on a computer program or in a website, engineers will say, oh, that's not a bug, that's a feature. Right. So I'm kind of playing on that here. You know, it's hard to claim that bugs in software are actually features.
But with marketers, with creators, entrepreneurs, that is totally possible. So if you think a bug about your personality is that you're an introvert and you spend a lot of time wishing that you were more extroverted, it would make sales so much easier, and make it easier to promote yourself, what if you thought about that as a feature instead. That the fact that you got to where you are today and what makes you so good at what you do is informed at least in part, by the fact that you are an introvert. And what, if you leaned into that and leaned into the things that only you could do, that other people couldn't?
So this reframe, this mental shift has been, has been so helpful for me. If I catch myself complaining about something about myself or complaining about a product that I have to market, or some situation that I'm in. Thinking, how can I turn this from a negative, into a positive? From a bug into a feature.
Watson: I love it.
And it's usually your capacity to do something like that, that actually achieves that differentiation. You were talking about anyone coming off the street, being able to do what it is that you're doing and unfair advantages. One of those unfair advantages can just be the specific bugs that you're overcoming that other people might not necessarily be.
Wes. This has been fantastic. I really, really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much for sharing some time with us.
Kao: Same. This was a lot of fun.
Watson: We just went deep with west Kao. Hope everyone out there has a fantastic day.